Pros: Clear, usable, unabashedly traditional, well written
Cons: Assumes you want to learn; unapologetic about French tradition; no pictures
It’s always interesting to return to a classic, but who now remembers this book, the first by the extraordinary teacher and chef Jacques Pépin? A slim trade paperback with no photographs or drawings, it speaks of a time before cookbooks became a major publishing genre. It also raises questions about the home cooking and cookbook revolution of the last generation.
In his luminous memoir The Apprentice, Pépin has told us a good deal about his background, his apprenticeship, early jobs, work for presidents, move to the US, work for Howard Johnson, and so on. From his many television series and specials, we all know him: master technician, charming raconteur, eloquent spokesman for many traditions and approaches to French-founded cuisine.
In A French Chef Cooks At Home, Pépin lays out recipes that he enjoys cooking for family and friends. These are not haute cuisine for restaurants:
This is not to say that the food will taste different from what is served in a good French restaurant, but the proportions are much smaller and the whole preparation is dissimilar. The chef works in another manner at home than he would in a restaurant where all basic sauces and varied concoctions are at his disposal. To make a coulibiac of salmon is quite an involved undertaking at home. It is an easy operation in a restaurant.
And he continues by explaining how a classical kitchen’s various departments put the dish together.
Anyone who recognizes that great French cuisine is at base nothing more than perfect cooking and presentation of rather simple dishes will appreciate the book. Those looking for novelty, fusion, and the like will find nothing. Pépin needn’t apologize: these things had not come into fashion when he wrote the book. On the other hand, he also avoids the fussiness still associated (often unfairly) with haute cuisine.
Consider classic French home cooking, like Poulet Grandmère. Pearl onions, butter, lardons, potatoes, chicken, white wine, mushrooms, a little brown sauce. What could be simpler, and yet so excellent? So often we hear that simple things are best, that the best ingredients make the best dish, but how rarely this is so cleanly demonstrated. Or Poulet Fine Champagne, nothing much more than chicken, cream, and cognac. (I confess: I gravitate toward chicken.) These are recipes easily prepared at home with the typical mediocre supermarket ingredients, but elevating them to the sublime requires no tricks — only superior ingredients and technique.
The book begins with a graceful essay in the French style, filled with allusions and quotes from greats like Curnonsky. Next comes an extensive and inspiring list of menus. The recipes themselves Pépin gathers in a straightforward fashion: basic recipes (stocks, foundation sauces, etc.), first courses, fish, meat and poultry, vegetables, desserts. Organization within each chapter is roughly by ingredient — all bivalves together, all veal dishes together, and so on — but is otherwise not clear, and in the absence of a comprehensive list of recipes (barring the index) it is difficult to know, without reading the book cover to cover, just what’s in it.
I find something oddly comforting about this book. In part it’s just nostalgia for a time when French cuisine could be unabashed and dishes did not have to be tarted up with false cleverness. But there is also a sort of naïveté about Pépin, as there was about Julia Child. Both of them really believed that the home cook would work through a recipe, and by the third or fourth time knock it out with only a brief glance at the text. It’s clear, reading this book, that Pépin thinks lobster in aspic (aspic de homard à la Parisienne) or lobster soufflé Plaza-Athenée, while obviously a major project, is within the bounds of possibility for the average person who enjoys cooking. He seems unaware, in his several recipes for brains, sweetbreads, and other offal, that his readers may be squeamish about such things, just as he disposes without comment of his lobsters: “Cut the [live] lobsters into pieces with a heavy, sharp knife.”
These days, serious home cooks and professionals alike have reference works like Larousse Gastronomique on the shelves, and scads of other texts presenting classical and more nouvelle approaches to this sort of French cooking. And in terms of technique or recipes there’s nothing extraordinary about Pépin’s book, even in its own day. It doesn’t break new pedagogical ground as Mastering the Art of French Cooking did, nor present some particular region or style. Perhaps this is why the book has been out of print so long, and never attained the status of a classic.
For all that, A French Chef Cooks At Home is well worth picking up — and not just for completist fans of Pépin. But you have to approach it a little differently than most cookbooks.
At base, this is a book to read. The recipes are fine, to be sure, but the whole book is so well written that it says something much more. If in Mastering the Art Julia Child gave the sense that she was standing with you in the kitchen, guiding your every move, here Pépin conveys an entire world. Without a heavy, didactic voice, he nonetheless projects what it means to be a good craftsman in the kitchen, someone who learns recipes and techniques rather than simply repeating them by rote.
In a funny way, this is where both Pépin and Child failed. They both wanted to teach us to cook, not to follow recipes. They both believed that people wanted to be freed of recipes and cookbooks. But Child always gave so much detail and explanation that the real audience, who never learned to cook and continue to imagine the perfect recipe as an automatic mechanism, think of her books as bibles to be followed — a disparity between writer and reader recently made obvious in Julie and Julia. Pépin is in some ways a more effective writer and teacher, and this book resists such fundamentalist misreading. That’s probably why he never had quite the success Child did, actually: the audience has never wanted to believe his fundamental principle, expressed here in the introduction:
Recipes are meant to help people; they do not perform miracles. Practice does. There are no “tricks” or “secret recipes,” only practice and experience.